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My Friend's Place And A 5K: A Safe Haven For Homeless Youth

Rebecca Gibian |
October 30, 2014 | 4:20 p.m. PDT

Senior News Editor

Susan Zeren Dutra and Heather Carmichael standing outside My Friend's Place. (Rebecca Gibian/Neon Tommy)
Susan Zeren Dutra and Heather Carmichael standing outside My Friend's Place. (Rebecca Gibian/Neon Tommy)
The top of the exit ramp heading to Hollywood Boulevard from the 101 Freeway is home to countless youth who set up camp in the open space.

Sierra, born in Long Beach, used to be a homeless youth on the Boulevard. She was in foster care her whole life and was homeless by age 18. She lived wherever she could—abandoned houses, on the streets, her friend’s houses. Her life was at a low point when she found My Friend’s Place in 2007. 

Sierra says My Friend’s Place is where she goes when she needs someone to talk to or a place to go. This past February, Sierra moved into her own apartment. 

SEE ALSO: Uncounted And Invisible: Homeless Youth In Hollywood

“I feel like, in this past year, I’ve really grown up and I really value my life and I’ve actually learned how to love myself because I never knew what that meant,” said Sierra, now 26, while sitting in the staff area at My Friend’s Place.

“I am really enjoying these days by myself, loving myself. I never thought that I was going to get to this point in my life without family but having (My Friend’s Place), I can’t let them go. They’re my family.”

Sierra is one of hundreds of young people who utilize My Friend’s Place, a youth homeless shelter based in Hollywood that serves young people ages 12-25. Started 26 years ago, the shelter has provided services to more than 1,400 youth and has served nearly 30,000 meals in the past year alone.  

And on November 8, Sierra will sing the National Anthem at the Run Hard Rock Cafe 5k, which will help support the youth at My Friend’s Place. 

It All Starts with a Meal

There are nearly 4,000 young homeless people on the streets of Los Angeles every year, according to the most recent Los Angeles Homeless Service Authority (LAHSA) homeless count.

My Friend’s Place works to build trust with homeless young people in order to lower the traditional barriers many homeless youth face while trying to access services, all while providing psychological, intellectual and physical opportunities. The original goal of the shelter, started by Steve LePore and Craig Scholz, was to “meet young people where they were at," from a very heart-driven place. 

“To figure out how to be a young man or a young woman in the midst of this (homelessness) crisis is very dangerous,” said Executive Director Heather Carmichael, LCSW. “Constructing yourself and your identity in the midst of a crisis will make it very hard to leave the streets.”

A mural outside of My Friend's Place. (Rebecca Gibian/Neon Tommy)
A mural outside of My Friend's Place. (Rebecca Gibian/Neon Tommy)

Some research says that providers have about 90 days to get to a young person who is new to the streets before they acclimate to their street peers. Because young adults are such social creatures, Carmichael explains, everything that drives them is to be in connection. After 90 days, young people will have a harder time breaking the connections they made on the street.

SEE ALSO: L.A. County Homeless Youth Numbers Continue to Rise

“Ninety days goes by like that,” said Carmichael.

That’s why My Friend’s Place asks no questions. There are no hoops to jump through. 

“You know when you go to the doctor for the very first time and they give you that packet of papers that you must get through in order to be seen? No. We don’t do that,” said Carmichael. 

Instead, a young person walks into the shelter and immediately gets a meal, along with a clean pair of socks and underwear. This model is known as a low barrier service structure. The staff find out about the young people in an organic way by allowing them to show who they are and what they need. 

My Friend’s Place also allows young people in, even if they are obviously under the influence of drugs or alcohol. Not all shelters do that, said Carmichael, but My Friend’s Place doesn’t say no, they say “come on in.”

“People are using because it’s miserable,” said Carmichael. “People are using because they’ve had horrific experiences and being in their body is torture.” By allowing young people in while drunk or high, that’s a low barrier service structure.

Carmichael rations that many young people have built up a sense of distrust of service organizations because the young people display their hurts in scary ways, such as punching windows or insulting staff.

“And people can’t tolerate it. We just keep saying ‘come on back’ because we’re really hopeful that at some point that’s going to change,” said Carmichael. 

Treating the Trauma

Carmichael and Susan Zeren Dutra, the director of development, feel that 100 percent of the young people at My Friend’s Place have faced some sort of trauma.

“Homelessness in and of itself is considered traumatic,” said Carmichael.

That’s why My Friend’s Place uses trauma-informed care—they recognize that young people have had a trauma or, most likely, multiple traumas. Trauma affects brain development, often causing young people to act out and not interact with the world in a way that gets their needs met. 

“Young people’s behaviors are not who they are, it’s an expression of something going on in their lives,” said Carmichael. 

My Friend’s Place houses about 65 percent men and 35 percent women. Dutra explained that young women really try to hide themselves and protect themselves on the streets. Therefore, they take risks they wouldn’t normally take, such as going home with someone or having a boyfriend they wouldn’t normally have. This way, “at least they know who’s coming at them,” said Dutra. 

“Young women are assaulted anyway, despite taking all these precautions,” said Dutra. “Having this element of always trying to maintain safety on top of meeting other basic needs for food and showers and hygiene, it’s intense.”

My Friend’s Place helps provide basic female needs and hopes to be a safe space so young women do not have to take risks on the streets. There is also a parenting program with a 20-week curriculum and a place for young parents to bring their babies. 

SEE ALSO: L.A.'s Homeless: Making the Invisibile Visible 

Many of the young people at My Friend's Place are musicians. The recording studio gives them the opportunity to record. (Rebecca Gibian/Neon Tommy)
Many of the young people at My Friend's Place are musicians. The recording studio gives them the opportunity to record. (Rebecca Gibian/Neon Tommy)

My Friend’s Place also offers education programs through workshops and one-on-one sessions. The shelter offers computers and also has a “recording studio” so that young people can come away with tangible items to present to others. 

As a 100 percent privately funded organization, My Friend’s Place cannot cater to every single need a young person has. But if a young person has a request that is fundamentally about health and growth, they try to make it happen. 

My Friend’s Place also focuses on fun, whether that’s painting pumpkins or doing circus and gymnastic tricks. 

“They identify as young people first,” said Carmichael. “Their circumstances are homelessness. If we interact with them as human beings versus humans in distress, they are so much more willing to be a part of what we’re doing.”

Facing the Critics 

According to LAHSA, the unaccompanied youth numbers in Los Angeles increased 122.5 percent from 2013 to 2014.

“First and foremost, I think we’re all terrified that homelessness can happen to us,” said Carmichael. “We have to push it so far away. We think it won’t happen.”

When faced with homeless youth, Carmichael explains, people get overwhelmed because the issue is so complex. While many people might say “these young people just need to pull themselves up by their bootstraps, move on and get a job,” that is not the only issue at hand. 

“That’d be really lovely, if there was adequate, affordable housing, if L.A. had a livable wage that afforded communities struggling in poverty to elevate beyond those circumstances,” said Carmichael. “We are not good at taking responsibility for our failures, so we point the finger at the young people.”

People also don’t want to enable others and worry about crossing the line. Jeff Katz, the development and communications associate, also believes that critics are worried that it could be them. 

“They think ‘That could be me or could be my kid,” said Katz, a staff member since June of this year. “Some people, it drives them to want to help, some people it makes them almost angry at the kids that are on the street.”

Finding Housing 

Sierra now calls My Friend’s Place her second home, because she has her own, new first home that she can go to whenever she wants. 

My Friend’s Place works to get the young people housing. Carmichael explains that the shelter partners with Hollywood Homeless Youth Partnership, a group that provides anything from emergency shelter to permanent supportive housing. 

However, she said that she is learning that you can put people in housing, but if they don’t have a community to support, “it’s torture to be in those roles when it’s dark and quiet and all of your haunts and hurts come racing forward. You’re right back on the streets.”

In the past year, My Friend’s Place has helped 118 young people find housing. 

Run Hard

Alison Maas, the sales and marketing manager of the Hard Rock Cafe Los Angeles Market, told Neon Tommy that the Hard Rock Cafe dreamed up the idea of shutting down Hollywood Boulevard for a race and asked Mayor Eric Garcetti for recommendations for a charity partner. He told Hard Rock about My Friend’s Place. 

The "thrift store" at My Friend's Place. Young people can take four items a day. (Rebecca Gibian/Neon Tommy)
The "thrift store" at My Friend's Place. Young people can take four items a day. (Rebecca Gibian/Neon Tommy)
“It was the most kind-hearted program I’ve ever heard to speak to us,” said Maas. “Heather said, ‘It starts with a meal. You come in, no questions asked and you get a meal.’ They were also the only organization that said, why should we tell you what we do? Come down to the facility and see what we do.’ It was nice, it made us feel like family.”

This is the second year Hard Rock and My Friend’s Place have worked together to create a 5k. This year, they are expecting about 2,000 people. Runners get an Official Hard Rock Cafe 5K Finisher’s Medal and a limited-edition design 5K Tech Shirt. A family-friendly event, the race will have booths for face paint and will feature local musical artists and DJs.

The race will also include My Friend’s Place youth runners. 

This past summer, Katz and Dutra started a running club at the shelter, with the goal of getting some of the young people to run the 5k in November. It started with three runners, but every Tuesday, whether it is one young person running or ten, the club goes for a morning run. 

Katz says this 5k helped the young people realize others were here for them, including My Friend’s Place staff members. 

“They take ownership of this place, which we love and we push for that, but suddenly they were seeing this other community out there where maybe their experiences are seeing people in that community ignore them. Or not pay attention to them on the street. Or be scared of them on the street,” said Katz, still in his running clothes from that morning’s club meeting. 

However, once the youth learned that people are willing to show up really early on a Saturday morning and do something to benefit the youth and the shelter, the young people were more engaged.

Carmichael and Maas believe the 5k is an opportunity for the young people to see the street in a new light. Hollywood Boulevard is often shut down for premieres, but the young homeless people are asked to move far away from those events. Instead, this event is bringing them and others from the community on to the street together.

“What a cool experience if your knowledge of that street—from (the homeless youth’s) perspective—is that it’s a home, it’s where everything happens for them, it is their neighborhood,” said Maas. “And now all of a sudden there are banners and DJS and people everywhere. How exciting to have such a different experience on that street.”

Sierra likes to write and to sing, along with ride bikes. She wants to go sky diving someday. She is excited to sing the national anthem and doesn’t seem phased that she’ll be singing in front of thousands. She recently completed a 10-week training program for mental health and re-enrolled in college.

“I figured out a lot about myself, like how talented I am,” she said. “Anything I do, I’m good at.”

The map above details homeless youth counts per state, according to The 2013 Annual Homeless Assessment Report (AHAR) to Congress.

To register for the Run Hard Rock Cafe 5k, click here. 

Reach Senior News Editor Rebecca Gibian here and follow her on Twitter here



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